Scientists finish first completely remote ocean expedition during lockdown

A team of researchers, in association with the Schmidt Ocean Institute, have completed an in depth 46-day scientific exploration of the Coral Sea Marine Park in Eastern Australia, all from the comfort of their own homes during the coronavirus lockdown.

Pumpkin star
Researchers remotely explored the depths of the Coral Sea Marine Park using ROVs, and found a range of marine life including this very rare Astrosarkus, commonly called a “Pumpkin Star” (Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute)

Over the past few months most of the world has stayed at home as we continue to collectively combat the global coronavirus outbreak. However for most, this hasn’t meant any extra time off, as many businesses and individuals have moved online in an attempt to keep working. This is no different for marine researchers, even if they can no longer get out into the field to study. Recently a team of Australian researchers, remotely working on-board the Schmidt Ocean Institute vessel Falkor, have completed what is thought to be the first completely remote at-sea scientific expedition. Working inside the Coral Sea Marine Park, they surveyed deep-sea coral reefs for the first time, mapped the seafloor up to 1600 metres deep, discovered species in places they didn’t previously realise they lived and discovered 10 new marine species, all from the comfort of their own homes. It highlights once again the positive impact technology can have on marine science and ocean exploration.

All aboard the Falkor (remotely)

Over the last few months, while most other ships stayed in the harbour, the Schmidt Ocean research vessel Falkor, the only year-round philanthropic research vessel in the world, has remained on the high seas carrying a very unique expedition team. For the first time ever the entirety of the research group, made up of Australian scientists and led by Dr. Robin Beaman of James Cook University, remained on dry land and connected remotely to the ship whilst remaining in lockdown at home. The Falkor spent 46 days inside the Coral Sea Marine Park in Eastern Australia, one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, whilst the remote researchers explored the marine environment through the eyes of advanced underwater robots.

The RV Falkor is the only year-round philanthropic research vessel in the world (Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute)

Whilst lots is known about the shallow water reef communities in the area, this pioneering expedition allowed researchers to explore the deeper areas of the park for the first real time. This was achieved through the use of a highly advanced remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) –SuBastian, which collected over 91 hours of high resolution video footage whilst surveying the region. The footage was then sent to researchers in order to identify species and create accurate underwater maps of the area, as well as being made available to other researchers and members of the public online. In a press release, Schmidt Ocean Executive Director Dr. Jyotika Virmani said that “the footage coming from our dives is just astounding” and that “the ​Falkor​’s robust telepresence technology has allowed scientists from all over the world to collaborate on some of these discoveries”.

Deep-sea discoveries

By exploring the marine park through the use of ROV’s allowed the remote research team to make a number of interesting discoveries. Some of the most important of which surrounded deep-sea corals, which lie further down below their vibrant shallow-water counterparts. Firstly they found hard corals living deeper than at any other point in Eastern Australia, in addition to learning much more about the communities that live amongst them. However most importantly they found that, despite record bleaching events in the region this year, no corals below 80 metres had bleached. Whilst this doesn’t provide much hope for shallow corals that have been decimated by rising surface temperatures, it is promising to see that deep water corals appear to be much more resilient to the phenomenon which could be very important later on down the line.

Hard corals
Some deeper habitats were seen to have fields of hard coral, dominated by the genus Leptoseris. Massive fields of these corals are known from places such as Au’au Channel in Hawaii, but fields had never been observed in the Coral Sea until these dives (Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute)

The other main area of success for the researchers was in seafloor mapping. More than 35,500 square kilometers were mapped during the surveys, an area more than half the size of Tasmania. This included the 30 coral atolls and banks in the park, which were previously poorly understood, as well as revealing submarine canyons, dune fields, submerged reefs, and underwater landslides. The mapping data recorded remotely by the scientists will now be used as part of larger seabed mapping programmes such as AusSeabed (national Australian seabed mapping program) and he Nippon Foundation GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project.

Underwater map
Osprey Reef is an atoll lying on the northwestern side of the Queensland Plateau within the Coral Sea Marine Park. It is roughly oval in shape, measuring 25 by 12 kilometres, and covers around 195 square kilometres. The newly released Falkor data mapped around it’s steeper flanks (Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute)

This expedition was also important because it shed new light on certain species that were previously unkown to the park, such as the Hawaiin spikefish (Hollardia goslinei). The footage collected also revealed 10 brand new species to science including fish, snails and sponges. However more importantly it also made these discoveries available to the wider public, who were also treated to footage of rarer species, such as some deep water sharks and chambered nautiluses.

A new age for marine research?

In addition to making some insightful new discoveries, the remote Falkor expedition also demonstrates the power of technology available to modern marine scientists. Like lots of other professions where working at home has been beneficial, it is also very possible that remotely working on ocean expeditions could become the new normal. Whilst the need for researchers on-board vessels for certain missions will always be necessary or at least beneficial, scientists and institutes will be able to save a lot of time and money by continuing to work remotely in this way.

Hawaiin spinefish
A striking image of a Hawaiin spikefish (Hollardia goslinei). This is a species of deepwater spike fishes native to Hawaii. ROV footage of this species occurring in Australia puts it very far away from its known ‘home’ range (Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute)

Chief scientific officer Dr. Beaman believes that “this vision is invaluable for science, management, and education” and explained that this particular expedition provided the team with “a unique window into both the geological past and the present day conditions” without having to leave their homes. As a result the Falkor and its ‘virtual crew’ of researchers will be returning to the area later on in the year to continue their work.

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